The forecasters predicted that the Royal Wedding would have the sort of effect that the first day of the cricket season once did, guaranteeing at least some rainfall after a drought. Not for the first time, they were wrong but we may look on April 29, nevertheless, as the first small watershed of the season, the end of the first four sets of LV County Championship cricket in all but three cases and the start of the time when attention starts to turn to the international scene.
The prologue could hardly have been better. We have enjoyed beautiful weather (who can remember a more glorious Spring?) and some very competitive county cricket, more or less evenly balanced in most places between bat and ball. Young thrusters like Chris Woakes and James Harris have been playing while the winter’s big cats are resting and now that Marcus Trescothick has started leading from the front again for Somerset we may feel that the season has begun in earnest.
Sometimes, alas, the overture is more glorious than the Opera. Meteorologically speaking, no doubt, that will be so – good English pessimists would insist that we shall have to pay for all this early sunshine – but an exciting programme of matches awaits between England and the two countries who were contesting the World Cup final in Mumbai less than a month ago. The selectors have three more weeks to plan for what will be an exhausting schedule once it starts.
India’s appointment of Duncan Fletcher as pro-tem successor to one of his closest associates, Gary Kirsten, has lent an added piquancy to the major series against India but it would be a surprise to me if Andy Flower has not added to his laurels by the end of the summer. Home advantage means less than it did when uncovered pitches in England took most touring teams by surprise but administrators make up for that by failing to give their national teams the right preparation.
England finally gave themselves a proper playing-in period in Australia last year and look what a difference it made. This year the Indians will arrive hard on the heels not only of the IPL but of a tour of the West Indies. Before them, the Sri Lankan principals will apparently arrive at the last minute for the first Test in Cardiff, having given preference to the rich rewards of the IPL.
Five years ago it did not prevent Mahela Jayawardena from making a match-saving hundred in the second innings of the first Test at Lord’s – Sri Lanka eventually drew the series – but England then had so few bowlers to call on that Andrew Flintoff naively bowled himself into the ground. Now, however, the selectors have choices in all departments, not least fast bowling.
They can afford to plan the season in the round, keeping one or two of the reserves up their sleeve or even, if they feel it right, giving the mentally bruised James Anderson a little longer to recover from his World Cup maulings if they feel that he will be more valuable against India, with spirit and sinew renewed.
Other things being equal, Anderson will no doubt lead the attack at what used to be called Sophia Gardens on May 26, with two from Tim Bresnan, Chris Tremlett and Stuart Broad. But what a line-up of reserves that would leave: Finn, Shahzad, Onions, Woakes, Dernbach, Harris, Roland-Jones…. there is a case, certainly, for a system of rotation.
Graeme Swann remains in a class of his own as a specialist spinner, but Monty Panesar, Adil Rashid, Danny Briggs and Steve Borthwick have all had their moments already this season. Borthwick can bat as well and personally I am not convinced that there is much to choose between him and Rashid, his rival from a little further south. Borthwick gives the ball an almost Warne-like tweak.
Keepers? If Matt Prior should break a finger when he resumes he already knows that Craig Kieswetter and Steve Davies are breathing down his neck, and Jonny Bairstow is a better batsman than his Test-playing father.
Curiously, it is in specialist batting that the cupboard is just a little bare of truly high-quality resources. A bit more Tesco than Waitrose overall, perhaps. Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen and Bell claim the top five places as of right after the Ashes, but who goes in at six? Eoin Morgan probably has the inside berth, certainly has the talent and just need to prove that he can consistently build long innings in two-innings cricket.
Andrew Gale, James Hildreth and Jimmy Adams maintained their momentum during the winter but it is Ravi Bopara, whom Essex have increasingly been using as a regular medium-paced bowler, who would balance the side.
At the start of the last series in Australia the home side had four men in their top six – Watson, Katich, Clarke and North – who had all taken at least one five-wicket haul in a Test match.
England got away with fielding only four specialist bowlers plus Paul Collingwood and a bit of Pietersen, but they would be world beaters for a long time if they could unearth one true all-rounder and, to be greedy, one really express fast bowler of the kind that makes opposing stomachs churn, even in the age of helmets.
Ben Stokes looks the best long-term bet for the all-rounder role but if Woakes keeps scoring runs as well as swinging the new ball, he may be ready sooner.
A final thought. It is surmised that Andrew Strauss will give up the captaincy for the 50-over internationals when they come. I hope that he does not, or his heavy burden will simply be transferred onto Alastair Cook.
Better for them to share it for a while. Strauss did absolutely the right thing when he had a rest during the series in Bangladesh in 2009-10 and he should have no compunction about picking and choosing again in the 12 months or so ahead, for the good of himself, Cook and England.